Another plane crash rocks a shattered town

Already in mourning, the Rockaways become New York City's latest ground zero.

On weekdays, Rockaway Rugby Club is the kind of joint where guys come with weary eyes and grease-smudged clothes after a long day's work, hoping to unwind with friends.

And like the Rockaway neighborhood itself, it's also a hangout for a lot of cops and firefighters, who make up just about half the 40 or so men who grind away weekends in bone-crunching rugby scrums.

Lately, however, teammates have spent their weekends going to dozens of wakes and funerals for friends they lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Now, just two months later, this: Only blocks away, American Flight 587 smashed into this tiny blue-collar neighborhood in southern Queens, killing all 260 on board. At least half a dozen more on the ground are missing and presumed dead. For a neighborhood already devastated from the loss of almost 70 of its own - one of the hardest hit areas in all New York - the thought of yet another ground zero is numbing to many here.

"It's taking its toll," says John McCann, chairman of the rugby club. "You know, you thought it was all over. You thought the funerals and the wakes were going to wind down soon, but now this happens."

Even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was incredulous. "I just passed a church in which I had been to, I think, 10 funerals," he said at the scene of the crash. "The idea that Rockaway was the victim of this - I mean, any place it happened, obviously, is awful - but it had a special significance to it."

Yes, as the home of so many firefighters and cops - it's where at least four precinct captains live - Rockaway's had to struggle to recover more than other places. But there's something about Rockaway. Perhaps it's that it lies on a sliver of beach, only four blocks wide in most places, already making it a close-knit community where mutual support comes as naturally as going to work every day. And even though they never asked to be thrust into the national view, residents have come to embody the resilient, defiant toughness of New York and America.

You know the famous World Trade Center photo of three firefighters raising the stars and stripes, surrounded by the smoldering pile of dust and twisted steel? The two on the left - they're Rockaway rugby guys. Or, remember the guy who, at the big music benefit seen by millions on cable TV, told Osama bin Laden to look at his face and kiss his royal Irish backside? Yeah, he's from Rockaway too.

There's nothing ritzy about the neighborhood. In both landscape and culture, it's as far from the glittering lights of Times Square as Topeka, Kan.. In any other city, it would be a working-class suburb, but N.Y.C. has no suburbs - it makes everything part of itself, which is why many say New York is like the whole world in one place.

In a community so close to Kennedy airport, a lot of people here didn't even suspect terrorism when they first heard the plane explode on the ground.

"Everybody around Rockaway is going to tell you, we thought it was the SST going overhead," says Regina McManus, referring to the flight pattern of the Concorde supersonic jets, which take off from the busy airport, just a couple miles away.

"They're not supposed to open that second set of supersonic burners 'till they're out over the ocean," she says, "but they just have to open them up early, and then the whole house shakes, your glasses rattle and everything when it comes over."

Like a lot of other stay-at-home moms here, Ms. McManus has lived here for more than 42 years. And despite the proximity to the airport, nothing like this ever happened in Rockaway before. Her worries on most days centered on putting together a lasagna for her husband and three children, or keeping the drawing of the American flag her daughter Regina had colored taped to the front porch storm door.

On this evening, as emergency vehicles were screaming by, she had to boil the noodles with the "emergency" water they'd stored in old milk gallons. With all the fire hydrants being used up the block, sediment and rust had made the water brown.

A few blocks down from the flashing red lights of Rockaway's ground zero, two seventh-grade girls ran from cop to cop and handing them 10 batches of chocolate chip, oatmeal, and peanut-butter cookies they baked.

Yet, despite Rockaway's small, close-knit qualities and mutual support, it's still not been an easy two months.

"We're in shock, we're just in shock," says Mr. McCann, him voice trailing off. "From Sept. 11 to now, with the holiday season coming on - I tell ya, people are pretty devastated."

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